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Vladimir Petric Teaches Film

By David B. Edelstein

Professor Vladimir K. Petric (called by everyone "Vlada") enters the Carpenter Center lecture hall on May 2 for what is to be the last lecture of his five-year career as Henry R. Luce Visiting Professor of Film Studies. Of the 180 students enrolled in the course, nine are present. By the end of the lecture, six more will have arrived. A puzzled girl distributes Committee on Undergraduate Education (CUE) Guide Course Evaluation sheets for next year's publication, but Professor Petric informs her with a trace of exasperation, that both he and the course will depart after this lecture--and besides, he says, class attendance is not exactly high this day. (Students present will later defend their absent classmates, citing the fact that reading period has already begun and final papers will soon be due.) His microphoned voice echoing over the empty hall, Petric delivers what some will later say is his most brilliant and successful lecture of the term: an excoriating blast of the Arts at Harvard, Harvard students, commercial cinema, and even of human existence. (Petric: I was sitting up in bed the other night when I began to laugh. My wife asked, "Why are you laughing?" "Because life is so absurdly funny," I told her.)

"I'm surprised that students were so unintelligent not to attend," he says, later. "They didn't think about the fact that on an emotional level the last lecture of a five-year program would be interesting, that I might express something unintentional, something related to my feelings about life."

Petric took over the professorship in 1973 from Standish Lawder, who had taught at Harvard for a year before leaving for Yale. The original Luce Grant to the Carpenter Center ran for five years, but the Luce Foundation extended the Film Studies program an extra year to the end of the current semester. With this money, and through the efforts of the Standing Committee on Film, the Carpenter Center has housed weekly experimental screenings, seminars, extra courses, guest lecturers and guest filmmakers. The last few years have seen the establishment of a film archive (with over 700 films), and the pur chasing of Steenback editing tables for film analysis, stop-motion projectors, and special cameras for making blow-ups of individual frames.

For the film committee, Petric prepared a five-page report entitled, "Film History as an Acadmic Discipline: Results of a Teaching Project." In its original form, the report closes, "...the six-year Henry Luce Program of Film Studies has proved it can be such a success." After his final lecture, however, he revises the last page, this time with publication in mind: "So far, my experience in this struggle has been less than rewarding."

Petric says of the apparent change in feeling, "The program may be judged a success by what was done to stir interest in the cinema--to bring to Harvard various professors of film, and to buy all the necessary equipment. Carpenter Center now has some of the best resources in the country. I don't think it was a success in persuading all the faculty and students that film could be studied as an academic discipline--it hasn't changed Harvard student's attitudes toward cinema, in spite of the fact that the course began five years ago with only 30 students, and now has 180. People still think of film as merely a medium for entertainment."

But on May 12, the Standing Committee on Film Studies, chaired by Stanley Cavell, Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value, meets with representatives from the Luce Foundation, as well as President Bok and Dean Rosovsky. No one had dared hope for much going in, but the Luce representatives and Bok and Rosovsky express their enthusiasm for the program and pledge future financial support to expand it. Petric, who has received several offers from other colleges, is offered a renewed professorship, which he immediately accepts.

The focus of the course which Petric has taught, Humanities 193, "History of Film: The Fvolution of Cinematic Expression," and the focus of his study of the cinema, is film as a unique art form. In his report, Petric writes, "Borrowing techniques common to literature, painting, music, photography, theater and other art forms, cinema has been able to assimilate more features belonging to other means of expression than any other pretwentieth century means of communication." Petric stresses that film artistry is the result of using visual and aural cinematic devices to convey thematic elements. A film may be intelligently written and acted, he says, but it does not qualify as a work of cinematic art unless all components are integrated. Likewise, a technically brilliant film cannot be cinematic art unless all the devices are used in support of the content and ideas.

Petric admits that one can approach film from numerous interdisciplinary angles (political, social, etc.)--and indeed he hopes to see courses and seminars in "Political Filmmaking," or "Film and Literature"--but such disciplines are not enough for Petric, since none treats film as an autonomous form of artistic expression.

"People can't understand that you can study filmmakers like Welles, John Ford, Renoir and Bergman the way you can study Tolstoy, Whitman and Shakespeare. Students have a difficult time accepting film as anything more than entertainment or communication. Imagine if a professor in the Music department had to spend a semester convincing students that there is a difference between popular music and music as art!"

"Film studies offers incredible opportunities for scholarly research--we rely only on written documents to study the original Elizabethan theater, but we can scrutinize films in the form in which they have always existed.

"Students who disregard film as art are poorer for it--it would affect their general perception, making them more sensitive to all the arts (even science), and it would expand them as intellectuals.

"Hollywood is the greatest stigma for film studies in this country--and yet without Hollywood even I wouldn't exist. This is one of the dialectics of our profession. When my colleagues finally realize that I'm involved in studying cinema by itself, they immediately ask, 'What did you think of Star Wars?'" He throws up his hands and gestures helplessly.

One function of film studies on a university level, says Petric, is to introduce the student to cinematic artists whom the popular moviegoers ignore: experimental filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage, Bruce Bailey, or Hollis Frampton, or foreign artists such as Kenji Mizoguchi or Jean-Luc Godard.

Although Harvard has no specific concentration in Film Studies, masters and doctoral candidates may concentrate in film within their own area of study. Currently there are doctoral candidates studying the Japanese Contemporary Cinema, Documentary Cinema (Wiseman), and Soviet Revolutionary Cinema.

Professor Petric often complains bitterly in his lectures about "journalistic film criticism," which only treats film "thematically and impressionistically. Reviewers can be moved by Chaplin, excited by Renoir, or taken by Citizen Kane, but hardly anyone specifically justifies his point of view analytically or cinematically." Music or art criticism, he points out, is often analytical, whereas film criticism is not.

Petric once wrote journalistic film criticism for the daily publication, "Politika," in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. His film reviews appeared in a weekly Monday supplement, and one day he was reading through it in a barbershop. "You're reading that crazy Petric," the barber observed. "Let me give you some advice: whenever he says a film is excellent, don't go, but if he says not to go to a movie, I guarantee you will enjoy it." That was the end of his career as a film reviewer.

"That helped me to realize that my judgment and approach was far different from that of the popular audience," says Petric. "If that hadn't happened, maybe I'd be one of the journalists in "The Village Voice" or "The Boston Phoenix" today."

Petric was born in Yugoslavia, and studied there, in Moscow, and in New York. He holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature, a B.A. in Theater Directing, an M.A. in Theater Criticism, an M.A. in Filmmaking, and a Ph.D. in Film Theory and History. In 1962 and '63 he made two narrative Yugoslavian feature films, and worked extensively in Yugoslavian television. His books include, Introduction to Film Theory, Film Versus Theater, and Eighth Power: Television as a Means of Expression and Communication. In this country he has contributed over 40 articles and essays to publications such as "Sight and Sound," "Cinema Journal," and "Film Quarterly." In 1969, a friend of his was producing Mel Brooks's The Twelve Chairs when one of the supporting actors bowed out. Brooks asked Petric to replace the actor--"because of my owlish eyes," Petric admits. "It turned out to be a stupid movie," he says. Before coming to Harvard, he taught at several universities and conducted seminars all over the country.

Now that Harvard has asked him to return, Petric will take the first semester of next year off(as he originally planned), to complete three books: Cinematic Analysis, a textbook for analyzing film structure; Theory of sound film, about how sound relates to images; and a monograph on Dziga Vertov, a Soviet revolutionary, avant-garde filmmaker of the silent era. He will also publish a recent interview he conducted with Orson Welles, whom Petric considers the greatest American filmmaker (though one who has been neglected).

On the basis of Welles' penetrating analysis of his own work in his recent movie, Filming Othello (which will not have a commercial release in this country), Petric has recommended to the Norton Lecture Committee that Welles be asked to deliver this prestigious lecture series in 1980. Welles, says Petric, will accept if asked. At present, Petric is preparing a screening of Filming Othello for the Norton Committee. Their invitation, he feels, will not only acknowledge Welles' position in cinema, but will give formal recognition of film as an area deserving of academic attention.

* * * * *

During director Anrei Serban's recent lecture at the Loeb Drama Center--a lecture composed of a series of questions and answers--Vlada Petric directs a questions to Loeb Producing Director George Hamlin: "Since you belong to this institution, do you plan to hire Mr. Serban to change a little bit of the theater we see here, which I find very conventional, boring and stale?" People gasp, some applaud, some laugh. During a reception afterwards, Petric tells me, "Two elderly ladies just came up to me and told me that I ought to be ashamed of myself" He says it with evident satisfaction, almost gleefully. He has made this criticism of Harvard theater before, and says of the institution, "Harvard does not accept art on an equal level with science--which is disgraceful."

Petric's "lack of manners" is legendary. Often he will interrupt section leaders in his own course, and berate them for missing small details. To some, this quality of aggressive bluntness makes Petric exasperating; others find it endearing. As section leader Robert Tranchin explains it, Petric applies the same rigorous standards to his own work as he applies to others.

During our interview, someone compliments Petric's patterned shirt. In response, he quotes from a poem called "Song of the Shirt." "Who wrote that?" he asks me. I tell him I have absolutely no idea. "It begins, 'Stitch, stitch, stitch," he says. "You're an English major--who wrote it?" I shrug stupidly. Annoyed, he gets up and asks several people standing outside his office. They shrug too. "Imagine--teaching assistants, and nobody knows 'Song of the Shirt!' "By now he is worked up; he picks up the phone and dials Widener Library. The librarian refers him to the Reference Room. After several minutes, someone comes up with the poet: Thomas Hood. "Thomas Hood! Yes..." says Petric. "It was also made by D.W. Griffith into a tenminute film," he says, and begins to rummage through his papers. After several minutes, he triumphantly tosses a reference in one of his own articles to the 1908 film onto the desk. "'Song of the Shirt,'" he repeats, "an example of the relationship between literature and cinema in the earliest stage of film history!" Such obsessive thoroughness is said to be characteristic of all Petric's work and research.

To understand Vlada Petric's vision of cinema, it is useful to cite and examine specific films. When I venture to say that Lina Wertmueller's Seven Beauties is among my favorite films, he characterizes her as "an interesting but unimportant filmmaker, a kind of Jacqueline Susanne of the cinema" who "entertains bourgeoise intellectuals on a slightly higher level than junk. In Seven Beauties the cinematic structure and forms that she chose don't correspond to the narrative and ideological substance. That content is superficially conceived she treated the dramatic concept without artistic depth." He then points out that we have reached an impasse--the only way to resolve the difference of opinion would be "to undertake a close analysis of the film. We would have to clarify the distinctions in the script, dialogue, dramatic structure, camera movement, use of color and sound, montage pace, acting and shot composition."

What about Jaws, which I found cinematically dazzling? "Junk," he says. "A stupid story--the techinique is meaningless." Its deficiencies, he says, show up clearly when compared to Hitchcok's Psycho.. "There was a very deep psychological justification for the horror in this film," he says. "In the shower sequence, Hitchcock created a metaphor for human fear. He also conveyed cinematically the theme of the inability to relate to another person."

He draws a diagram to illustrate his points. On one side is narrative content, and on the other cinematic technique. In the center is the integration: art to convey a message. He places Annie Hall on the narrative content side (he considers the film cinematically inept), and Jaws on the side of good cinematic technique with trivial content. Neither bridges the gap the way Welles' Touch of Evil, superficially seen as a lurid melodrama, does, creating a broader cinematic metaphor. He gives Annie Hall a grade of B-, Jaws a D. So much for my favorite films.

Next spring, Petric hopes to teach a smaller course in either the evolution of silent cinema, or avant garde cinema. As a result of the combined promises of President Bok, Dean Rosovsky, and the Luce Foundation, he hopes to see the Carpenter Center purchase new 35-millimeter equipment, thus enabling the study of the newest films and allowing current filmmakers to introduce their works at Harvard.

As the subject of an interview, Vlada Petric is as demanding and enthusiastic as he is when teaching. "I have an ending for your article," he says, suddenly, and waves his hands while composing his sentences. "I know the future of the film program at Harvard will depend on money," he begins. "Film Studies is an expensive medium which when approached in a scholarly way does not bring back profit. But there are dreams, dash-dash, even in academia, dot dot dot, that money cannot buy." His last sentence, he explains, is a pun of a '40s avant-garde film called Dreams That Money Can Buy, which he screened for Hum 193 this year.

"I think that's a good ending."

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